Today marks the 94th anniversary of the establishment of Grand Canyon National Park. A week ago, coincidentally, marked what would have been Hugh Morton’s 92nd birthday.
Morton visited the Grand Canyon in late January 1987, based upon the dates of “01-26-1987” and “01-30-1987” printed with a matrix dot printer on the plastic mounts of two rolls of 35mm slides.
Or did he?
Let’s use this scenic photograph, and the little we know about it, as an exercise in a way to use the Morton finding aid—with an added caveat on how to use calendar dates provided in the finding aid as starting points that need confirmation rather than exactitudes.
Searching the Morton collection inventory for “January 1987” using a Web browser’s “Find” function reveals several matches. Cutting and pasting the subjects into a new list ordered by date gives us a glimpse into Morton’s photographic activities for that month:
- “Grand Canyon,” January 1987 (35mm slides, no exact dates)
- “UNC-Maryland,” (UNC-Jacksonville University basketball), January 1987 (35mm color slides; no exact dates)
- “Bulls-Celtics” (Mascot, cheerleaders. Jordan, Bird), January 1987 (35mm slides)
Gary Everhardt, George Olson, Roy Taylor and Cotton Robinson: “Western North Carolina Tomorrow,” 12 January 1987 (black-and-white negatives)
- “Good Snow, Doc Watson,” (sunset, people in creek), 14 January 1987 (35mm color slides)
- Gorilla, 15 January 1987 (35mm slides)
- “Dean Smith” (Press conference), 15 January 1987 (35mm slides)
Kuralt, Charles “North Carolina is My Home”: Chapel Hill, 23 January 1987 (black-and-white negatives)
Michael Jordan, Chicago, 27 January 1987 (black-and-white negatives)
“UNC-Clemson, Clemson, Kenny Smith scores 41,” 28 January 1987 (black-and-white negatives)
- “Mildred in Snow,” 29 January 1987 (black-and-white negatives)
The lines above, extracted from the topically arranged finding aid, form a chronological list. Looking closely, you can see that Hugh Morton would not likely have been at the Grand Canyon on the 26th and the 30th if he was in Chicago on the 27th . . . and Mildred the Bear probably didn’t take a trip to Arizona! Also, with a bit of checking you find that the basketball game between UNC and Jacksonville was played on December 13th—a month earlier! What’s going on here?
For those readers who have only photographed with digital cameras, the following may seem a bit strange, but it is true. Unlike your camera’s EXIF data that records the exact time—to the second—that you make an exposure in camera, the date provided on a 35mm slide mount records the date the photography lab processed the film. So what is going on in line two of the list? I haven’t gone to the slides to verify this, but Morton likely didn’t finish shooting an entire roll of film at the UNC–Jacksonville game, so he finished the roll during the game against Maryland on January 8th.
Not all slide mounts have dates, but there may have been a postmark on the box indicating when it left the lab. Dates provided for negatives, on the other hand, are mostly those that Hugh Morton wrote on negative sleeves and envelopes; some, however, were determined by staff who either discovered or easily obtained dates for events. A good take away from this exercise is to be sure you understand what the dates represent, and verify them if it is important to your research or project.
Understanding what machine printed dates represent is good information to keep in mind if you are looking at old family photographs and see dates that don’t make sense on snapshot borders or the backs of prints. A family group portrait made with everyone standing next to a snowman at Uncle Charlie’s birthday in January that has a “July 1956” date stamped on the photograph may mean that Aunt Esther didn’t take the camera out of the hall closet for several months.
The above list of Morton’s January 1987 subjects presents a revealing insight to the range and depth of Hugh Morton’s photographic career in microcosm. That’s an pretty impressive cast of characters and locations for one month—figuratively as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon.
You may have discerned in the list that there are some other date conflicts, incomplete dates, or things that make you go “Hmmmmm.” If the spirit moves you, have fun trying to clarify them, then leave a comment with your conclusions. You might even be able to find out when Morton went to the Grand Canyon. If anyone recognizes Morton’s exactly location when he made the photograph, we might even be able to use shadow casting to date the image. That would make for another interesting post.
Now if we only knew why Hugh Morton went to the Grand Canyon . . . .